Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Retaining international employees

I previously wrote about recruiting international employees and today we're going to cover retaining them.

I've written about homesickness before, but I was curious just how prevalent this problem is. In Chapter 2 of the US Expatriate Handbook, I found the following:
Consider the following percentages, provided by the Business Council for International Understanding, of expatriates who return to the US prematurely from a foreign assignment: London 18 percent, Brussels 27 percent, Tokyo 36 percent, and Saudi Arabia 68 percent.
Why? It's difficult to generalize this study because it focused on employees who were transfered from the US to international assignments rather than employees directly recruited abroad, but from my personal experience and research, I would suggest that recruiting someone from Dubai to Saudi Arabia might have a better success rate than recruiting from the US to Saudi Arabia. This is because the more foreign a culture is, the more homesickness an international employee might feel. If you're hiring someone from the UK and your target country doesn't have a "pub culture" that employee enjoys, that might be a warning sign.

Homesickness

This is your biggest obstacle. Read my homesickness post if you really want to understand this. Most of the expats working for my company with whom I've chatted about this topic all tell me it's a problem: they often don't want to move home, but there's a lot that they miss. We hire enough people from around the world that you often can find a couple of people from your country, but at the end of the day, when you can't even figure out how to write a check or find a dentist who speaks your language, that added stress contributes to the homesickness.

Form a Welcoming Committee

This could be a single person or a group of people, but if you're hiring someone from another country, there's a good chance that people in your company will be just as curious about the new hires as the new hires are about their new home. If you can create a welcoming committee, someone from that committee can be introduced to that person on their first day and offer to "show them the ropes." When I first moved to Nottingham, UK, one of my new colleagues, Paul, offered to carpool to work with me and he quickly became a good friend and we even took a road trip to Corsica together. We're still in touch even though we live in different countries. Having a local I could turn to to ask stupid questions was invaluable in helping me adjust to the British lifestyle.

Of course, you could also designate an HR representative to this role. This has the benefit that they're more likely to know relevant laws and have a better appreciation of confidentiality, but having "volunteers" for this strikes me as a way of finding something more welcoming than someone who's paid to do it.

Language Courses

If their primary language is different from that of the new country, consider helping them enroll in language courses. Even here in Amsterdam where everyone speaks English, virtually all government and banking paperwork is in Dutch. Even if that wasn't the case, it's much easier to integrate into a culture when you speak the native language. This is particularly true in areas such as Paris where not speaking the language can be seen as rude.

Offer Financial Advice

This might seem strange, but employees won't necessarily know where to bank, what housing they can afford, or where they can affordably shop. The first time I lived in Amsterdam, I did all of my food shopping at Albert Heijn, not realizing that Albert Heijn is one of the more expensive supermarkets in the Netherlands. That had a significant impact on my budget. Today we do most of our shopping at ALDI or Dirk van den Broek and only go to Albert Heijn for specialty items.

While you're at it, consider buying your employees travel cards/passes, or whatever your local area offers. When transportation costs are less of an issue, it's just one more stress that the internatioanl employee doesn't have to worry about. Traveling a bit and getting to know the area will make them appreciate it more and the cost of the pass is an inexpensive way of building loyalty and showing that you care.

Understand Cultural Differences

US workers are often encouraged to speak their minds very directly. This works well here in the Netherlands, but it's decidedly less popular in the UK. An international employee who isn't aware of these differences can easily offend people without meaning to. Crossing your legs and bouncing your foot up and down might entail the grievous insult of showing the bottom of your shoe to someone. With all of the work an expat has to do to get up to speed in a new culture, getting advice on the differences is very welcome.

Adjusting to a new life in a new country can be challenging, but you can earn your new employee's loyalty by helping them however you can. There's a lot more to recruiting internationally than simply offering a nice salary and benefits.
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